NEWS 2005


17 February, 2005

Somalia's struggle against glorified guns

By Joseph Winter
BBC News

The latest book by world renowned Somali author Nuruddin Farah is a gripping account of the dangers and insanity of life in Mogadishu after 14 years of anarchy.

Farah lives in exile in Cape Town

Links, which is being published in the UK next week, is the story of Jeebleh, a Somali who returns to Mogadishu for the first time after living in the United States for 20 years.

He finds a city destroyed by civil war, in the grip of collective madness, where normal human compassion is only extended to members of the same clan.

Walking the streets, he finds a large crowd looking at a man who has collapsed after having an epileptic seizure.

"Why do you need to know his clan family before you help him? You make me sick, all of you," he shouts.

Despite his gloomy account of life in the Somali capital, Mr Farah told the BBC News website that Somalia's exiled government should return to Mogadishu as soon as possible and not wait for foreign peacekeepers.

"Many of them have not been back for a long time. It's a lot easier place than many assume," he said.

Hope and death

Like Jeebleh and the government, Mr Farah lives in exile but he goes back twice a year and says he feels safer in Mogadishu than in Nairobi - where the government is based - or Johannesburg.

Mogadishu is in ruins - looters tried to steal this oil drum

He says that as a Somali, he understands the "code" to survive in Mogadishu, which would also hold for the government.

If there is fighting, you just avoid that area, he says. "You can be hit by a stray bullet but that could also happen in New York."

In the novel, Jeebleh returns home for two main reasons - to rebury his mother, who died while he was in the US, and because Raasta, the daughter of a close friend, has been kidnapped.

As you would expect in a story about Mogadishu, which remains divided between several rival warlords and their gunmen, death is a constant theme.

"[A] Somalia proverb has it that the shoes of a dead man are more useful than he is," Jeebleh says.

His mission is to let his mother rest in peace - which has been denied to so many victims of Somalia's 14-year civil war.

"The glorification of the gun in the hands of an African peacekeeper is not what we need now" ( Nuruddin Farah )

Jeebleh is shocked to see so many vultures circling for freshly-killed bodies.

In the midst of all the death and destruction, Raasta has a mysterious ability to bring calm and tranquillity to those around her and has built up quite a following among the many Somali refugees who have flocked to the capital.

This young girl symbolises Somalia's hopes for a peaceful future and the novel ends with Jeebleh's dramatic attempt to recover her from the gunmen's clutches.

'Glorified gun'

Despite his disappointment about the government's reluctance to go home without the backing of peacekeepers, Mr Farah says he remains optimistic.

He said the huge, cheering crowds who turned out to welcome the first government delegation to visit Mogadishu shows the goodwill of the Somali people towards President Abdullahi Yusuf's team.

"Some people lack the courage or the conviction that they can go back and rebuild Somalia. If they don't, it would be a tragedy for Somalia," he said.

Links has many references to the disastrous US intervention in Somalia in the early 1990s, which is remembered in the west for the image of US troops being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by gunmen.

But Mr Farah spells out why many Somalis celebrated when the US troops left, even though they had arrived as saviours, safeguarding food aid deliveries during a drought.

"They used overwhelming force in such an indiscriminate fashion and lots of innocent Somalis died," says Raasta's mother, Shanta.

"[They] saw everything in black and white, had no understanding of and no respect for other cultures. They were also let down by their intelligence services," says Seamus, an Irishman who flees Belfast for Mogadishu.

Many Somalis back Mr Farah's opposition to foreign troops

The book was written before the invasion of Iraq and Mr Farah says that many of the problems the US troops encountered there could have been avoided if the lessons had been learnt from their experience in Somalia.

He says that many of Somalia's current problems stem from the militarization of Mogadishu during the US intervention.

"The glorification of the gun in the hands of an African peacekeeper is not what we need now," he says. "What we need is for Mogadishu to be emptied of guns."

Mr Farah says that any money raised for peacekeepers would be far better spent on rebuilding Somalia's shattered schools and hospitals.